December 30, 2012 3:14 pm

All the best: Bach’s Goldberg Variations

A round-up of performances of the ‘keyboard exercise’ around which opinions still swirl furiously
Johann Sebastian Bach©Getty

Johann Sebastian Bach

In his illuminating survey of Bach’s life and works, published by Faber in its deceptively titled Pocket Guide series, Nicholas Kenyon describes the composer as “one of the most mysterious, accomplished and protean creative geniuses our civilisation has ever produced”. He then goes on to quote a string of eminent figures, from Tchaikovsky to Thomas Beecham, Bernard Levin and Stephen Hough, who claimed never to have “got” Bach.

The work around which such opinions swirl most furiously is the “keyboard exercise” known to posterity as the Goldberg Variations, first published in 1741. One of Bach’s least “public” works, it is an intricately balanced and structured sequence of 30 variations lasting well over an hour without a break – and even longer if the performer includes the discretionary repeats. Framed by an innocent-sounding aria that provides an uplifting start and a harmonious end, the Goldbergs are indeed a set of exercises – incredibly elaborate and challenging ones, with an inner design and outer architecture that only someone of Bach’s exceptional ingenuity could combine.

But since the 1950s, and especially in the past 30 years of period-instrument popularity, they have been elevated to a pedestal so high, so full of spiritual/metaphysical significance, that encounters with them in the recital hall can leave the listener feeling more let down and relieved that the ordeal is over, than exhilarated and fulfilled.

There are no rules as to what constitutes a satisfactory performance. As befits a work widely and rightly regarded as a musical Everest, the list of pianists and harpsichordists attempting to conquer it is long. Therein lies a conundrum: do you go for an “authentic” performance on harpsichord, producing a sound that vaguely approximates what Bach heard? Or the modern piano, the preferred instrument of big-name interpreters? In theory you should have at least one of each in your CD collection, if only for comparison. In practice, you need a performance that can withstand repeated listening, and that’s why, for home listening, I prefer the piano every time, with its wider palette and expressive potential. The best place to keep up to date with the style scholars is the recital hall, where the harpsichord’s pale sound is less wearying.

No discussion of the Goldberg Variations can proceed without mention of Glenn Gould’s 1955 account, which still enjoys cult status but, like his stereo remake (also on DVD), is too wilful and eccentric to rank as anything more than a curiosity. Rosalyn Tureck’s ponderous recording is another much-touted relic of the LP era that has not worn well.

Angela Hewitt provides the most pianistic of modern recordings, imbuing her playing with what she calls “the joyous tone that is characteristic of so much of this work”. Her performance is full of dynamic contrast and expressive touch. It is also a shade too extrovert for such evenly calculated music. András Schiff balances the work’s innate exuberance with a more grounded sense of its technical élan. Like his ECM remake at full price, his earlier (and cheaper) Decca recording is always reliable and often inspired – especially in Bach’s dazzling part-writing, to which he brings clarity and musicality.

The version I return to with greatest enthusiasm is Murray Perahia’s – a choice no doubt influenced by the incandescent performance he gave in the wholly inauthentic surroundings of the Royal Festival Hall in March 2000, the year he made this cornerstone recording. What I love about his playing is not just its fluency and colour, but also its thoughtfulness, intimacy and humanity – an antidote to the severity this music inspires in so many performers. Despite basing his interpretation on a detailed study of Bach’s harpsichord literature, Perahia’s pianism extols the music’s dramatic qualities, creating a seamless and wholly natural progression of crescendo, climax and resolution.

On harpsichord, Wanda Landowska, Trevor Pinnock and Andreas Staier deserve serious consideration. Landowska, who re-introduced the Goldberg Variations to the repertoire in 1933, is still a contender, combining grandeur, virtuosity and restraint. Pinnock brings vitality and rhythm to everything he plays – always based on scholarly judgment, without allowing scholarship to impede his irrepressible musical instincts. Staier offers virtuosity and dextrous aplomb, but tends to smooth over the structure – almost as if he wants to give an objective appraisal of Bach’s technique rather than a subjective guide to the music’s greatness.

This is part of an occasional series on building a library of classical music.

For more ‘All the best’ round-ups from Andrew Clark:

Lutoslawski

Sergiu Celibidache

Wagner’s Ring

Carlos Kleiber

Delius

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